Gods & Stories from African Mythology

Instructor: Emily Teater

Emily currently is a substitute teacher, and has taught a variety of K-12 courses. She has a master's degree in Mythological Studies.

In this lesson, you will become familiar with some of the more popular figures in the pantheon of Yoruba mythology. This lesson will also cover the lasting influence these figures have today in the African Diaspora religion of Santeria.

Yoruba Religion and Santeria

While there are many deities to be found in African mythology, hundreds even, one of the more fascinating and extensively researched mythologies is that of the Yoruba tribes in West Africa. One of the reasons for this is that the religion and the deities did not stay tethered to West Africa. During the years of slave trading, many West African slaves were sent to Cuba and Haiti. Not wanting to completely abandon their religious beliefs, the slaves associated their gods and goddesses with Christian saints, thereby masking their beliefs from their masters. As a result, the Cuban religion, Santeria, emerged, where these Yoruba gods and goddesses are combined with Christian saints, and they are worshiped as such. Here, we will discuss the Yoruba gods and goddesses, or Orisha, who would become the popular figures in both religions.

Creation Gods

Nana-Buluku: In the Yoruba creation myth, Nana-Buluku is a creator god. Sometimes Nana-Buluku was described as being a female, grandmother figure, and in others as a genderless creator god. Nana-Buluku gave birth to twins, Mawu and Lisa, who would control the Earth with their children, the lesser gods. Nana-Buluku also had a pet serpent, called Da, who would carry them where ever they wanted to go. But as Nana-Buluku created the world, they realized that everything they created could not be supported and might tip over. To prevent this, they made Da curl up under the earth by biting its own tail to form a cushion to keep the earth in place. Nana-Buluku created the ocean to keep Da cool, and tasked monkeys to keep it fed with iron bars. Eventually, that iron will run out and Da will become so hungry, it will eat itself until there is nothing left and the earth will tip over.

Nana-Buluku, being depicted as the grandmotherly figure of creation.

Obatala: Another creator god is Obatala. Obatala is the son of the sky god, Olorun, who tasked Obatala with creating the world. Obatala found some gods having a party on his way to do this job, and stayed at the party instead, getting incredibly drunk. Obatala's younger brother, Oduduwa, took advantage of this situation, stole Obatala's supplies and created the world himself. Olorun was disappointed in Obatala, and instead decided to give him the job of creating humans. Obatala did this drunk too, hence why humans are so imperfect. Obatala later turned his act around becoming the Great White God, a figure surrounded by a white cloak who encourages purity among people.

A statue of Obatala as the Great White God.

Olorun: Olorun, in many regards is the Zeus or Jehovah of the Yoruba pantheon. He is god of the heavens and creator of the world. In reality though, he is more of the planner of the world, as he gave the task of creation to his son Obatala. Eshu is also his personal messenger.

Yemaya: Yemaya is the goddess of childbirth and water. As queen of the oceans and the seas, she is the highest reigning water god in the Yoruba tradition. She was married to Obatala and is considered the mother of gods as Shango is her son. She is also sometimes goddess of the moon.

A Cuban dancer dressed as Yamaya, wearing the goddess

Gods of Nature

Oba: Oba is the goddess of rivers, and sometimes marriage. Oba represents not just the literal rivers, but also the rivers and waters of life. In some stories, she is the wife of the god, Shango, and one of her more prominent myths focuses on this relationship. Oba and Oya were already married to Shango, but Shango loved his mistress, Oshun, more than them. In her jealousy, Oba asks Oshun how she makes Shango so happy. Oshun, jealous that it is Oba's children who will inherit Shango's kingdom, lies and tells Oba that a long time ago, she cut off a piece of her ear and used it as an ingredient in her cooking, making Shango desire her more than that of Oba or Oya. Oba goes home and tries this, but Shango spots the ear in his meal, and thinking she was trying to poison him, drives her away. She came down to Earth and became the Oba river, which crosses the Oshun river, indicating their rivalry.

Oko: Oko is the god of agriculture and fertility. He came to Earth and lived on a small farm, growing some of the most beautiful and delicious fruits and vegetables. One day, he simply vanished, leaving nothing but his staff sticking in the ground. When the people saw this and realized his gift with agriculture, they knew then he must have been a god. The staff later became a phallic symbol, representing fertility, and Oko has a holiday just before the rainy season devoted to him where men are encouraged to be a little more than friendly with the local women.

Osanyin: Osanyin is a lesser god of agriculture, specifically, herbs and small plants. Osanyin is a peculiar looking god, in that he is missing a leg, an arm, and is blind in one eye. He was once given a task by his brother to pull all the weeds from the garden. When his brother returned, he found Osanyin weeping because he could not find any weeds in the garden. All of the plants there had a use, he explained, and therefore, he could not complete his task. He soon passed on his knowledge of all the uses of the plants to the other gods, thus becoming the god of herbs and healing plants.

Olokun: Olokun is the Poseidon of the Yoruba gods, as he is the god of the seas. In some tales, he is the brother of Olorun. Like many mythologies, Olokun factors into a myth about a great flood. One day, humans annoyed Olokun so much, he was prepared to wipe them all out with a flood. Thankfully, this flood never happened as Obatala came down and chained Olokun up before he could do anything.

The surviving remains of a statue, depicting Olokun.

Oya: The goddess of storms and strong winds is Oya, one of the wives of Shango. She is also known as a guide to the dead and is the only Orisha who has one foot in the world of the living and one in the world of the dead. She also helps remind the living of the ancestors from which they came. She is also goddess and protector of the marketplace. Oya has had and lost nine children, and she wears nine different colored scarves in memory of them. As the wife of Shango, she once stole his secret of creating lightning and knows he's afraid of the dead.

Shango: Shango is the god of thunder and lightning and uses his drum to create that thunder. He is frequently depicted wearing the double-bladed axe and his favorite colors: red and white. He was well known for his three lovers, Oya, Oba, and Oshun.

A dance wand depicting Shango. Note the double axe worn on the top of his head.

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